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Going Global: Translation and Localization Tips for Startups

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Translation and Localization Tips for Startups

In the early stages of your business, you are most likely targeting customers in the United States. But as you grow, you may want to increase your reach internationally. It is said that you should buy in your own language, and sell in the language of your customer. This requires you to localize your website, your promotional material, and your sales platform.

Localization should not be taken lightly, and is not something you can do on the cheap. It makes the difference between whether your company can sell its products or services in different markets, or whether you fail. And if you fail in a market in the early stages, it’s hard to come back and succeed.

I worked as a translator for many years, helping companies in France sell their products and services to English-speaking countries, and I’ve seen many successes and many failures. In this article, I’m going to give you some translation and localization tips, so your startup can get off on the right foot in foreign markets.

What is localization?

What is localization

Localization involves translation, but isn’t always the same thing. You may localize a website from English to, say, German, but you may also need to localize a website if a US company is planning to launch in the UK, Canada, or Australia.

For example, “pants” does not mean the same thing in the US as it does in the UK, nor do terms like “windshield,” “potato chips,” or “biscuit.”

You’ll need a native speaker from your target country to check all texts, even if you’re just working in another English-speaking country.

‌Localization also involves images and logos

Localize images and logos

It’s not just your texts that need to be localized, but also many of your images and logos. You need to take into account cultural norms and customs in the target country. For example, people in the UK and some other countries drive on the left side of the road; showing a car with a right-side steering wheel is incongruous. There are countless examples of localization gone awry for even some of the biggest global brands.

Don’t use Google Translate

Machine translation has come a long way in recent years, and Google Translate – or other online or software-based translation services – have made a great deal of progress. This his occurred because there is now a huge corpus of texts available for analysis, allowing machine learning to match source and target texts to find what works. While Google Translate is good for the occasional email or to understand (more or less) what a website in a different language displays, don’t use it for any mission-critical texts.

Find a reliable translation agency or freelancer

There is no shortage of translation agencies around the world, who work with freelancers to outsource translations in a multitude of language combinations. Don’t use someone in your company who happens to have studied a language for a few years to translate your website or even important emails. Ask people you know in your sector who they’ve used for translations, and then ask the agency for samples of their work. You may be lucky enough to find a freelancer – ideally in the country where you are planning to sell – who knows your sector well enough, and, if so, cultivate that relationship, because that’s a person who will be valuable for your business.

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys

This commonplace is especially true when you look at translation services. If you scout out a few translators or agencies, discard the cheapest ones right away. This is a competitive market, but the ones whose prices are at the bottom of the scale generally either aren’t very good. Translation is a highly-skilled profession, and good translators get paid fairly well.

Find native speakers in the countries you target to check your translations

When you find a translator or translation agency to localize your material, you won’t be able to judge whether they’ve done a good job. For example, it cost HSBC $10 million to fix the damage caused by a single word in a slogan that was mistranslated in several countries. You need to find native speakers who can evaluate their work. This isn’t always easy, but if you already have some staff in the country, you can use them to check translations. If not, look on LinkedIn or other sites for a freelance writer in that country who has the language skills to judge your texts and perhaps suggest alternatives when necessary.

A language isn’t the same in every country where it’s spoken

Just as British and American English are different dialects of the same language, the same is true for Portuguese (Portugal and Brazil), French (France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, etc.), and even Chinese (there are more than a dozen dialects). Don’t assume that texts you have localized in a language will work in another dialect of that language; they could even backfire, as some words may be used very differently.

Think about your brand

The most important thing to consider is your branding. Some brand names may not work in other countries; they may be the same as common, even offensive words, or they may be hard to pronounce. Pepsi is Pecsi in Argentina, where the “ps” sound is hard for the locals to say. Toyota was originally spelled Toyoda in English, until the brand realized that using the “t” sounded better. Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC, in order to go international (and changed that to PFK, or Poulet Frit Kentucky, in Quebec). Diet Coke is Coke Light in Europe; Lays potato chips are Walkers Crisps in the UK; and T. J. Maxx is T. K. Maxx in the UK.

Expanding internationally is a big step for businesses, and it’s important to do this right, paying careful attention to localization and its pitfalls. Working with the right professionals can help a business make sure they don’t fail because of mistakes they simply don’t understand.

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